Note: I began writing this report card at the 40-game mark but ran into computer troubles and wasn’t able to post it. Though the Tigers have blown past that milestone I’ll still submit it for your consideration.

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If you’ve followed the Tigers for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with Sparky Anderson’s old saying about giving a team 40 games before drawing any conclusions. Last Wednesday night Justin Verlander handcrafted the Tigers 5-1 win over the A’s on Wednesday and gave the Tigers a 23-17 record at the 40-game mark. So, is it time to draw conclusions?

Why not?

First, let’s look at where the Tigers sat after 40 games over Jim Leyland’s previous seasons:

  • 2010 – 23-17, 2nd place, 1 game back
  • 2009 – 24-16, 1st place, 4 games up (Finish: 86-77, 2nd place)
  • 2008 – 16-24, 5th place, 5 games back (Finish: 77-84, 5th place)
  • 2007 – 24-16, 2nd place, 1 game back (Finish: 88-74, 2nd place)
  • 2006 – 27-13, first place, 1 game up (Finish: 95-67, 2nd place, Wild Card, lost to Cardinals in World Series)

The Report Card

Offense

Though the starting rotation rapidly emerged as the Tigers’ number-one concern in April, it was actually the offense that concerned most fans and observers. Where will the runs come from?, we asked.

Lo and behold, after 40 games the Tigers had one of the American League’s a top-five offenses — a .269 team average, just .003 behind the third-ranked Twins. Detroit ranks eight in the majors. (It delights me to see the White Sox in the MLB basement with a .230 team average.)

And don’t forget that the Tigers are near the top of the division without Carlos Guillen who was hitting .311 when he went on the DL in April.

Pitching

Now how about that pitching? Despite all the well-document woes surround the starting five — hello, Max Scherzer — the Tigers after 40 games ranked sixth in the A.L. but 14th in MLB with a 4.14 ERA. Verlander course-corrected in a hurry after a clumsy start and was 5-2 with a 3.43 ERA. Sure, his high pitch counts are at times infuriating but Verlander’s done nothing less than pitch like an ace. Now if Rick Porcello can stop giving up so many hits, he might have it figured out too.

You can have your pick of the great stories taking shape out in the bullpen: Joel Zumaya‘s resurgence. Phil Coke‘s reliability. Ryan Perry‘s maturity. Eddie Bonine‘s 3-0 record and 1.59 ERA. And, of course, there’s the closer that many Tigers fans didn’t want: Jose Valverde. In 19 games he’d failed to preserve just one of 11 save opportunities — and surrendered just two runs.

One-quarter of the way through the 2010 season it’s clear that the bullpen is the main reason the Tigers are where they are in the standings.

Defense

Here’s a somewhat rhetorical question: What happened here? The 2009 Tigers had a vastly improved defense over the 2008 nightmare — we’re looking at you, Edgar Renteria — but this year’s team has regressed to a stunning degree.

Last year, they finished sixth in the A.L. with a .985 team fielding percentage. So far this year? Worst in the A.L. — .978 — and next-to-last in the majors. Meanwhile, the Twins are the best-fielding team in either league at .994. In fact, Minnesota as a team had just nine errors at the 40-game point — three more than Scott Sizemore had in 30 games.

Adam Everett has been flawless so far and Austin Jackson has been committed just a single error.

The Tigers can hope for better pitching, more consistent offense and more of the same from the bullpen, but if they don’t lockdown the defense, there’s no way they can continue to hover around first place.

The Conclusion

So far, the 2010 Tigers have been thoroughly entertaining if not a complete package. They have to be thankful that the White Sox and Indians are off to sluggish starts and look unlikely to compete for the division title — for now. And the Tigers look like legitimate contenders — for now.

If the Tigers can tighten the D, get Scherzer and Armando Galarraga untracked, keep Guillen healthy, and beat up on the White Sox, Royals and Indians, they can keep the Twins from running away with the Central.

Yeah, yeah, I know: that’s a lot of ifs. But so far this season this Tigers team has earned the benefit of the doubt.

What do you think?

Bonus!

Just for fun, I researched where the Tigers were after 40 games during seasons in which they reached the postseason. Thanks to the awesome Baseball-Reference.com, here’s what I found:

  • 1987 – 19-21, 5th place, 7 games back (Finish: 98-64, lost to Twins in ALCS)
  • 1984 – 35-5, 1st place, 8.5 games up (Finish: 104-58, defeated the Padres for World Series title)
  • 1972 – 23-17, 1st place, 1.5 games up (Finish: 86-70, lost to A’s in ALCS)
  • 1968 — 24-15, 1st place, 1 game up (Finish: 103-59, defeated Cardinals for World Series title)
  • 1945 — 24-16, Tied for 1st place (Finish: 88-65, defeated Cubs for World Series title)
  • 1940 — 23-17, 3rd place, 3 games back (Finish 90-64, lost to Reds in World Series)
  • 1935 — 22-18, 4th place, 3.5 games back (Finish: 93-58, defeated Cubs for World Series title)
  • 1934 — 22-18, 3rd place, 1.5 games back (Finish: 101-53, lost to Cardinals in World Series)
  • 1909 — 24-16, 1st place, 3 games up(Finish: 98-54, lost to Pirates in World Series)
  • 1908 — 21-19, 3rd place, 1/2-game back (Finish: 90-63, lost to Cubs in World Series)
  • 1907 — 24-16, 3rd place, 3 games back (Finish: 92-58, lost to Cubs in World Series)